For decades, Nicola Tesla was the quintessential forgotten hero, largely neglected as everyone sung the praises of Thomas Edison. But we seem to have reached some sort of nostalgic tipping point, because suddenly the internet is falling all over itself to build a monument to the man.
Why? Betabeat talked to the instigator behind the movement, The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman, and he explained it pretty simply: “I thought, It’s a travesty. There should be a Tesla museum.”
A longtime Tesla fanboy, Mr. Inman has previously expressed his devotion with a comic titled, “Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” (and could have been subtitled, “And Why Thomas Edison Was the Devil in Human Form”). Many of Tesla’s newfound admirers, he says, were brought into the fold by that very comic, to the point that, “I sort of felt like I was this unofficial leader of Tesla fandom,” he told Betabeat.
As of this very minute, the campaign has raised $443,955, more than halfway to its $850,000 goal. Would-be Martian Elon Musk–who, it must be noted, named his electric car startup after the inventor–has even pledged to make a donation. Fans’ enthusiasm temporarily crashed the site earlier this afternoon.
The lab in question, grandly dubbed Wardenclyffe, is now a dilapidated property in Shoreham, N.Y. But once it was home to Mr. Tesla’s perhaps most mad science-like experiment, his ill-fated attempt at free wireless energy transmission (something his investors weren’t actually too keen on). The property was eventually sold to a photographic film manufacturer, and by the late 20th century, it was a Superfund site.
Asked about his decision to support the project, Mr. Inman cited both his hymn to Tesla and the runaway success of “Operation Bearlove Good, Cancer Bad,” his revenge-inspired fundraiser for the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society.
“When I heard about this Wardenclyffe project, to save Nicola Tesla’s old lab, I thought, I kind of had a practice round in with the Bearlove campaign, the one where I got sued, and combine that with my Tesla comics and all the stuff I have for Tesla on my site, I thought I’d be the perfect person to give this campaign a swift kick in the butt.”
It was actually Reddit (naturally) that alerted him to the existence of the effort to buy the property. “I was getting some tweets, but I didn’t know how realistic it was until there was a Reddit post sort of saying, hey, someone should get a hold of The Oatmeal, I know he’s a Tesla fan, he might be able to help. That’s what started it,” he told Betabeat.
Between being based in Seattle and the fact the property is privately owned, he hasn’t actually seen the site yet. Nor has he met the folks behind the Tesla Science Center. “We’ve been talking over phone and email for the last two weeks, but that’s pretty much been the extent of it,” he told Betabeat.
“This all came about really quickly, and we agreed to rush this whole idea because there’s another offer on the table to buy the land, and so what I heard about this, it seemed like there was a sense of urgency,” he added.
America’s conspicuous lack of a museum devoted to Nikola Tesla seems to genuinely peeve Mr. Inman: “Tesla was Serbian, but he stated many times that he considered himself an American. He was a citizen. He felt American in his beliefs and a majority of his career was spent in New York City,” he said.
He added, “Edison’s got tons of museums and monuments, and I feel that Tesla’s achievements were much more impressive and revolutionary than Edison’s were.” That’s up for debate, but Mr. Inman’s point is well taken.
The Indiegogo campaign is merely to purchase the property before someone else (like the developer said to be currently in the bidding) can. Turning the site into a fully functional science museum is probably “more of a six-to-seven-figure cost, like somewhere between $7 million and $10 million,” but Mr. Inman does have a plan. He’d like to draw in a corporate sponsor like General Electric or J.P. Morgan, or perhaps a Tesla-loving tech entrepreneur, like Larry Page.
While the campaign hasn’t even been up for a full day and it’s already halfway to its fundraising goal, Mr. Inman would prefer not to count his chickens. “I noticed with my last campaign and Kickstarter that you’ll have this huge surge right in the beginning, and then they’ll just kind of die off. So I’m trying not to give this tone of ‘mission accomplished’ to anybody yet, because I feel like we’re still getting there.”
However, if they pull it off, he’s excited to make the trip to the East Coast. “I will be the first person on the property, probably having a barbecue or camping,” he said. Well, in that case, let’s hope they did a good job of remediating all that cadmium contamination.